Ben Devereux sat on a cottage chair in his living room, bored by his existence. He gave up his job as a teacher when he inherited a substantial amount of money from his late father and now he didn’t know how to fill in his time. Outside, wild October winds shook tree branches and leaves from the trees in the street swirled around giddily before landing in his garden. He could sweep them up, but it was pointless in such a wind.
Daytime television held no interest for him, and he had given up on newspapers, which were full of the direst warnings and seemed to concentrate on the worst aspects of humanity. He was pleased when the telephone rang. He picked up the receiver.
‘It’s Jack Carver here.’
Jack taught at the same school as Ben and the two shared a common interest in bus timetables. It was a friendship that lasted until Ben quit teaching.
‘I haven’t heard from you in ages,’ said Ben.
‘I thought I’d give you a call - see how you’re getting on.’
‘Well, Jack, I’m engaged in an arboreal project at this moment.’
‘Yes. I’m watching the autumn leaves fall to the ground.’
’Always the joker, Ben.’
‘Jack, what is it you really want?’
‘Is it as obvious as that?’
‘After a gap of two years, yes.’
‘I’ve a field trip to arrange - those little blighters from 2B. I’m short of a decent pair of binoculars. My six by thirties are no use. I need your twelve by fifties, if you’ve still got them.’
Ben thought hard. Where were they? Not in the garage, for he was in there yesterday looking for an Allen key and the binoculars were conspicuous by their absence. The loft? Yes, the loft.
‘I still have them, Jack. I believe they’re in the loft. I’ll have a look after lunch and give you a ring if I find them. You can call here and collect them.’
‘Thanks. Where are you living now?’
‘17, May Crescent.’
‘South end of town?’
‘Just past the carpet warehouse.’
‘I know it.’
Ben rang off and went into the kitchen to prepare a lunch of cheese and chutney sandwiches and a cup of tea. He brought his lunch back into the lounge and sat in his cottage chair to consume it, all the while thinking of the last time he’d used the binoculars. Bird-watching, the feathered variety. He’d been out on the moors and spied a stonechat, at least that’s what it looked like, according to the British Book of Birds he kept in his extensive library. He was still teaching then, and it seemed appropriate to have some sort of outdoor hobby. He didn’t pursue it, once he’d finished at the school, so the binoculars languished somewhere in the loft. They were his father’s, an expensive pair - Barr and Stroud naval binoculars, used in the second world war. Ben’s Father bought them from a retired submariner from Plymouth long after the war ended, and they were amongst a litany of items Ben inherited after his father’s demise.
The loft was accessed by a hinged aluminium Ramsay ladder that folded neatly inside the roof space and extended when you let down the trapdoor. If you were lucky when you unfolded it, you retained all your fingers, for the edges of each of the three spring-loaded portions were razor-sharp.
Ben climbed the ladder and hoisted himself into the loft, which was long and high, easily able to accommodate a man standing. It was also stuffed full of bric-a-brac and furniture. It was boarded and insulated with rockwool fibre, thanks to a government scheme that encouraged householders to insulate their lofts and attics by offering a fifty percent discount on the contractor’s charge. He switched on the light. A cloud of dust rose as he made his way gingerly across the floor, as if at any minute the boarding might give way and he would end up flat on his back on the bedroom floor below.
At the far end, against the chimney wall, was a small deal table upon which stood the binoculars in their fine leather case. Ben smiled and shuffled over to pick them up. As he did so, his knee hit a dining-room chair and something fell from it and landed on his foot. He clicked his tongue in annoyance, picked up the item, to find it was a camera in its case. He slung it around his neck by the shoulder strap and collected the binoculars. He would examine it later because he couldn’t recall the item at all.
He returned to the lounge and placed both items on a coffee table. He withdrew a tin of Lord Sheraton’s leather balsam from a cupboard and polished both cases vigorously. When he was satisfied at the sheen on the leather, he examined the binoculars first. They were in excellent condition. Putting them to his eyes and adjusting them, he could see as far as the fire station on the left and the town hall on the right. He expressed satisfaction and set them back in their case.
He took the camera from its holder and gazed at it with a puzzled expression. It was a Cosina CT1A, a relatively cheap 1980s unit. Then he remembered. He’d been given it as a gift for his eighteenth birthday by his Aunt Maisie. He’d only used it once, because he was no photographer. It occurred to Ben that he’d never even had the film developed. He closed the curtains and very gently opened the back of the camera. He was right - the cylinder containing the exposed film nestled snugly in its nacelle beneath the winding mechanism. He removed the film and laid it on the table.
Ben took the undeveloped film to Carter’s on the corner of Beak Street. The shop was a throwback to the 1960s, the last time it was modernised, although Mr Carter was obliged to sell modern digital cameras and accessories, all of which he heartily despised. He was a throwback to a time long before the 1960s, with his grey corduroy jacket and faded cavalry twill trousers. He looked through horn-rimmed spectacles at Ben before speaking, in a slow, considered way.
‘Not much call for developing these films now, Mr Devereux, what with all this digital claptrap,’ he said with a sigh, his bushy white eyebrows waving like a butterfly’s antennae. ‘Of course, I’ve still got my equipment - it’s only that I never get the chance to use it these days. I’ll have your film ready for you tomorrow.
‘Did you find them?’ asked Jack.
‘Yes. I’ve cleaned and polished them. They’re as good as new and waiting for you to collect.’
‘When can I come round?’
‘I’ve some prints to pick up from Carter’s, which won’t take me long. How about this afternoon, after school?’
‘Fine. I’ll see you then.’
Ben stepped inside Carter’s. A bell rang in the back shop where the proprietor was eating his lunch and he bustled into the main shop, brushing crumbs from his jacket as he went.
‘Ah, Mr Devereux, I have your photographs here. Not the best quality, I’m afraid, but I’ve done what I can with them. Some of them are a little over-exposed, I fear. I think you’ve used too slow a shutter speed for the lighting conditions.’
‘I was only eighteen.’
‘Really? It’s a miracle the prints could be developed at all after all that time.’
‘They were still in the camera, in an unlit loft.’
‘Ah, that perhaps explains it. That’ll be eight pounds, Mr Devereux, and I hope to see you shopping here again soon. Always a pleasure, sir.’
Ben shook hands with the old man and slipped the prints into his overcoat pocket. The bell rang again as he closed the door and left the shop.
‘How is the old boy?’ asked Jack, seated in a chair opposite Ben.
‘He seems remarkably well, and in good spirits. He doesn’t like digital cameras, though.’
‘No. He’d be more at home with a black cloth over his head and flash powder waiting to explode, so he could get the perfect negative on a photographic plate.’
‘Yes, there is a touch of the Victorian about him.’
‘Let’s see them then.’ said Jack.
‘Oh, I haven’t had the chance to look at them yet.’
Ben went to the sideboard and picked up the envelope containing the wallet that held the prints. He opened the envelope carefully with a sharp letter-opener and extracted the wallet. On one side were the photographs, on the other the negatives. He carried them back to his chair. He withdrew a score or so of six by four coloured prints and arranged them face up on the coffee table. He picked up the first and handed it to Jack.
‘Where is it?’ asked Jack.
‘Heathersley Common, I think.’
‘A few shrubs and some grass. Call yourself a photographer?’
‘I was eighteen.’
They went through the photographs, one by one. Most were over-exposed, as Mr Carter said, but the last one held an absolutely perfect image. Ben laid it down and both men stared at it for some time before Jack said: ‘who is she?’
The photograph showed a pretty girl with long dark hair, standing in front of a bus shelter. She was wearing a trench coat and a pair of calf-length boots. What was most striking about her was a twinkling smile that seemed to light up her whole face. Ben was silent for a while before answering him.
‘I had quite forgotten. It’s Diane Oliver.’
‘She was older than me - nineteen. Her parents weren’t fond of me.’
‘They thought I was too quiet, too reserved. I was, of course. They wanted someone more outgoing for their daughter.’
‘They put an end to it?’
‘They wouldn’t let her see me. Just after this picture was taken. It was the winter of 1985 - you can see she was buttoned up against the cold. I never saw her again after I took that photograph. It broke my heart.’
‘Is that why you never married?’
‘Perhaps. I never really gave it much thought. I did love her, and I think she loved me.’
‘What happened to Diane?’
‘She married and had a family. That’s all I know and that’s only because I found out from Mrs Islington, my father’s next-door-neighbour.’
‘Nosy old biddy,’ said Jack, who did recall the formidable Mrs Islington.
‘Know what I’d do, if I were you?’ added Jack.
‘I’d look your Diana up, for old time’s sake. See how she’s managed over the years. See if she still remembers you. Show her the photograph.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. She’ll be in her sixties now. She’ll not recall any of this. She might think I’m a confidence trickster. In any case, how on earth can I find her? I’ve no idea what her married name is.’
‘Does she still live in the town?’
‘I haven’t a clue.’
‘It doesn’t matter. You can search for the marriage certificate on-line if you know her maiden name.’
‘I told you - it was Oliver.’
‘You’ll have to search one of the genealogy websites, such as Ancestry. You can sign up for a 14-day free trial, then cancel the trial once you’ve found out what you’re looking for. Go and fetch your laptop.’
After a few hours’ research, the pair uncovered the fact that Miss Diane Oliver married Mr John Featherstone on 7 April 1988. A check of the local electoral register showed a Mrs D. Featherstone lived at 26 Lily Avenue. There was no mention of a Mr J. Featherstone at that address or anywhere else on the register.
‘Let’s go,’ said Jack, once all this information had been gleaned.
‘I’m not sure,’ said Ben.
‘It’s a once in a lifetime chance,’ said Jack, ‘it looks like she’s divorced John and settled down on her own. You never know till you try. I’ll come with you, hold your hand, so to speak.’
Lily Avenue was a street of prim 1950s bungalows with tidy gardens, a few with monkey puzzle trees in them. Number 26 was no different - front and garage doors painted red, cast-iron guttering black, windows sparkling clean, and lawn clipped neatly.
Ben lost his nerve and made to turn away. Jack grasped his arm and almost dragged him along the street. As they approached the house, some of the neighbours came out of their homes and stood around the entrance to number 26. Ben and Jack mingled with them.
‘Shouldn’t be long,’ said one woman.
‘No, Edith, they’re due at twelve,’ said her companion, ‘it’s five to already.’
‘Such a pity, Sarah.’
‘Yes. No warning, either. You know what they say - here today, gone tomorrow.’
‘Molly’ll be upset…’
‘And Gareth, don’t forget Gareth,’ said Edith.
‘Here it comes.’
A long black hearse rounded the corner followed by three funeral cars. It pulled up outside the house. Six men in dark coats and striped trousers entered the house, led by a woman in a grey top hat and similarly coloured gloves. The men soon emerged from number 26 carrying a coffin. The woman in the top hat followed, comforting a man in his thirties, who wore a dark, defeated look, and a woman of a similar age, whose eyes were red with crying.
‘A heart attack,’ said Sarah, ‘down like a light she went.’
‘She were never the same after her husband died,’ observed Edith.
‘Still, it comes to us all in the end,’ remarked Sarah, sagely.
‘Funny thing, though, Sarah. According to Molly, she’d recently been looking for somebody,’
‘Somebody she knew?’ asked Sarah.
‘Yes, someone she’d met a long time ago, Molly said.’
‘Do we know who?’
‘Molly said it was a bloke she once went out with,’ said Edith. ‘He had a funny surname, apparently - Devilblow or something. That’s it, Don Devilblow.’
‘Did she find him?’ asked Sarah.
‘No. I don’t think she ever did.’
Jack touched Ben lightly on the arm, and very quietly they both walked away.